Chelsea top after forgettable Old Trafford stalemate
Mourinho’s return to Manchester United fails to live up to the hype
Chelsea target Wayne Rooney is challenged by Frank Lampard at Old Trafford. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Chelsea’s Ashley Cole (left) and Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney battle for the ball at Old Trafford. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United 0 Chelsea 0: Maybe the game arrived too early in the season to be a classic. José Mourinho’s return to Old Trafford certainly never conjured up the drama that had been anticipated.
No knee-slides in that crisp, dark suit, and only a few sporadic moments when David Moyes’s first home match as Manchester United manager looked like it may turn into one of the nights of his life.
For the most part, the two managers just stood there, hands in pockets, watching two teams slug it out without managing to create a single clearcut chance.
A game played at this speed, with all the surrounding politics and intrigue, can never be described as dull but the stalemate was disappointing given the weight of expectation that had accompanied the occasion.
There are some games that have everything but a goal. This, however, was not one of them and it will quickly be forgotten compared to some of Mourinho’s previous visits.
His team had defended with supreme organisation but they looked a little feeble in attack and, ultimately, the tactic of not starting with a classic centre-forward did not have any real success.
Andre Schürrle was asked to take on the role of the false number nine, albeit one wearing number 14, with Oscar, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne in the support roles. For now, this kind of system remains the speciality of Spain and Barcelona.
Mourinho had explained it as wanting to “go for mobility”. In other words, he felt Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand might be vulnerable to pace and movement.
It felt like a sad reflection on the decline of Torres, a player who once terrorised Old Trafford in Liverpool’s colours. Demba Ba clearly has a lot to ponder, too, after not even making the squad.
Yet Mourinho’s logic was not flawed. United’s centre-backs have been slowed down by age and injuries and, at right-back, Phil Jones is not as quick on the turn as the injured Rafael da Silva. Mourinho’s belief was that a fast, slick, attacking team could conceivably get behind this defence. His new-look frontline was devised because of these very qualities.
What Chelsea lacked sometimes was the presence a more orthodox front man could have provided. Their attackers were not particularly adept at the basics of holding up the ball.
They flickered only sporadically at first, whereas Wayne Rooney, the player Chelsea want to fill the position, was on the other team, chasing down opponents, running for every ball and showing no outward signs about what a strange moment this was in his professional life.
Rooney was given a hero’s welcome by the Old Trafford crowd. If he had listened carefully, he would also have heard himself being serenaded by the Chelsea fans. “We’ll see you next week,” they sang. However scrambled his mind, nobody could doubt his commitment on the night.
Rooney was quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and as prominently involved as anyone.
What he could not do was introduce some penetration or guile during those long spells when the action was so frenetic; with everyone getting so little time on the ball, there were only fleeting moments of penalty-box activity.
The first half was played at a speed more fitting to ice hockey than football, when maybe it needed someone to put his foot on the ball and start orchestrating matters with a little more subtlety.
Instead it was too quick to be pretty sometimes. Oscar had the first chance with a crisp shot that he aimed too close to David de Gea in United’s goal.
Robin van Persie flashed a shot into the side-netting and Rooney could not get a clean enough connection with his one chance of the first half. Tom Cleverley put another effort over the bar and, on the balance of chances created, United had the slight edge in the first 45 minutes. Neither side, though, could put together a sustained threat to the opposition goal.
At that stage the greatest entertainment for the crowd came in the form of the verbal points scoring. “You wanted the job,” the Stretford End sang for the benefit of Mourinho. Chelsea’s supporters repeated their new-found affection for the opposition number 10. Honours even.
On the pitch, however, there was little width or penetration. Antonio Valencia did not seem to have the confidence to believe he could get past Ashley Cole. Hazard seldom took on Jones and Kevin de Bruyne was only on the edges. Van Persie and Rooney worked tirelessly, not always in tandem, but John Terry and Gary Cahill were difficult opponents for the most part.
Danny Welbeck gets through a prodigious amount of defensive work for an attacker. However, the composure that he had showed in United’s opening-day win at Swansea was sorely lacking when he had two chances inside the first 15 minutes of the second half.
In between, Cahill had smacked a long-range effort into De Gea’s arms. Rooney tried his luck from a similar distance but Petr Cech saw it coming and gathered up the shot comfortably. Rooney could later be seen chasing after Ramires in United’s left-back position and dispossessing him with a perfect sliding challenge.
He had played with distinction and another shot forced Cech to turn the ball round his post for a corner. This was the disappointment for both sides: neither Cech nor De Gea had to make a save that could ever be rated as more than six out of 10.